OK, first: Who was Charles Lane?
He was a classic Hollywood character actor, with ever-present glasses and suits, and his characters often looked like run-of-the-mill office workers.
But there was nothing ordinary about Lane’s characters; they specialized in Making Your Day Worse. You see, Lane played rent collectors, IRS agents, hostile reporters, and the Like. You get the idea.
As IMDb wryly notes, “Mean, miserly and miserable-looking, they didn’t come packaged with a more annoying and irksome bow than Charles Lane.”1
Yet, he was a Very Busy actor. He appeared in over 250 Hollywood films, including 10 films for director Frank Capra. After WWII, he was in demand on television – and all this doesn’t include his stage appearances.
Here are some Charles Lane Fast Facts:
Despite this considerable talent and experience, Hollywood typecast him as the aforementioned misanthrope, precisely because he was so Good. This must have been frustrating, because Lane was equally skilled in comedy and drama.
But the typecasting is key to why Charles Lane matters.
In classic Hollywood, character actors were “types”. They played the same character in so many films, they became their own shorthand.
If Charles Lane walks into a scene, for instance, you know he’s got Bad News shoved in his attaché case, and that other characters will have to take Sudden and Drastic Action.
This is what an established character actor does: He or she saves time and extraneous explanation in movie storytelling. They add texture and subtext, and, in classic Hollywood, many of them had the best lines in the film.
Even with limited screen time and their names buried in the cast credits, these folks were not regarded as second-class actors. Everyone knew they were hired for a Reason: To make the story better.
This was something Frank Capra acknowledged. He once wrote Lane a letter expressing his appreciation for the actor’s gifts.
“I am sure that everyone has someone that he can lean on and use as a crutch whenever stories and scenes threaten to fall apart,” he wrote. “Well, Charlie, you’ve been my No. 1 crutch.”3
Here’s the thing about Charles Lane: Although he was one of many, many talented actors, he had a certain quality that suggested his appearance in a film was just one stop in his character’s Important Day.
It’s almost as though he’s starring in another film, in a parallel movie universe, that happens to cross paths with the movie we’re watching.
When Lane exits a scene, we (yours truly) want to know where he’s going and whose day he’s going to Ruin next.
This makes him more than a Stealer of Scenes; it makes him Powerful. Lane may be on the screen for less than two or three minutes, but he often signals a change in the direction of the story.
This is why he matters. He takes the small amount of material and screen time allotted to him, and turns it into something Big and Magical.
That’s the stuff of legends.
This post is part of the What a Character! 10th Anniversary Blogathon, hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken & Freckled, Once Upon a Screen.
*Watch a tribute to Charles Lane on his 100th birthday HERE. (Wait for his response at the end.)
1IMDb. (Retrieved December 2, 2021.) Charles Lane.
3MeTV. (Retrieved December 2, 2021.) Charles Lane was Happy Playing Classic TV’s Biggest Stinker of All Time.